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The End of clydefro’s Film Journal May 26, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films , 5 comments

But it’s also the beginning of something else. Yes folks, I am leaving behind my humble Film Journal for a still humble new site - clydefro.com. The TCM Ten picks and the reviews, and even a few additional features, will continue. I’ve also moved most of the content from here to there. I will no longer be updating my Film Journal after this week, though it should stay as is for now. This week’s TCM Ten might get cross-posted to remind everyone of the venue change.

Thanks to all the visitors and readers who’ve stopped by over the nearly 3 years I’ve been here. I sincerely hope you’ll help me transition to the new place.

The Basement of My Brain March 16, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, Classic Films , 3 comments

I don’t think I want to make it a habit here, but this is a little chance to catch my breath and mention the reviews I’ve been writing for DVD Times. In case anyone reads this who doesn’t regularly visit the DVD Times site, here’s a link to all the reviews I’ve done. I’d prefer to mostly keep what I do here separate, but I’ve just put up something I wrote about one of my very favorite films, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and I’ve been so terrified I would screw it up that I had to put together some sort of addendum over here to help alleviate my anxiety. Like I do most of the time, I wrote the bulk of the piece in one sitting, and I’ve fretted and repeatedly read over the thing for nearly a week now. At some point, I just had to let it go and move on. I think it reads better the first or second time than the hundredth, for sure.

I also wanted to thank anyone who read or commented on my No Country for Old Men review, which has been predictably popular and yielded some kind words. I think it’s one of my favorite things I’ve written, and it’s always more fun to write about a film you love than something you’re indifferent to or flat-out don’t like. Night and the City was another one of those for me. I do like the variety of different works I get to review, and a look at what I have here coming up confirms that. The three Second Run releases I’ve reviewed have been especially rewarding, particularly Palms, and Miklós Jancsó’s The Round Up promises to be at least as challenging. Also in the near future, I’ll be writing about new volumes of The Untouchables and The Mod Squad television shows. Neither one is particularly great, but I do find something comforting and entertaining about both.

The BFI will be releasing an Otto Preminger double feature of his pre- and post-Laura films, Margin for Error and A Royal Scandal. I’ll aim to have that reviewed by the March 31st release date. There’s also the animated Bee Movie, from Jerry Seinfeld, which I just received on release date last week. That will get a run-through after I finish Eclipse’s “Lubitsch Musicals” set. There’s a certain aptness in moving through Wilder to Lubitsch to A Royal Scandal. Serendipity, I guess. I should also mention that I’m modestly proud of most likely being the first person to turn E.E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town” into a template for a film/DVD review of Last Holiday. I amuse myself in funny ways, not all of them successful.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford February 17, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 12 comments

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The American Old West has been mythologized to excess, especially the less-than-noble bandit criminals. Jesse James, then, would be the prince of these men, too often wrongly characterized as Robin Hood-like figures who were merely setting things “right.” James was popular enough to inspire numerous film versions in Hollywood’s classic period, including stabs by three of my very favorite directors - Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray. Of those trio of films, Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James most closely resembles Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford because it lets Ford share some of the action. Bob Ford would, no doubt, be delighted with the attention.

Growing up, I can vaguely remember rumors that Jesse James had at one time resided in my county. Though I’ve never seen any documentation of this, I suppose it’s not completely out of the question. James was almost nomadic in his paranoid compulsion to relocate for fear of being caught or, presumably, killed. Though he was largely lionized and celebrated as an enemy only to the wealthy, James was also a murderous thief who’d shoot anyone he had to. For decades, Hollywood has mostly preferred to focus on the Jesse James myth instead of reality, despite such misleading film titles like Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James. Unfortunately, the story there is whitewashed and it’s one of Ray’s most disappointing films from his highly fertile output of the 1950s. Robert Wagner is no one’s ideal of a notorious outlaw. There are flashes of a good movie in there, but it’s ridiculous to try and squeeze anything of substance about James into 92 minutes.

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The situation is similar with the earlier James films. Lang’s effort, The Return of Frank James, actually focused on Frank James following Jesse’s death and was a sequel to Henry King’s Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power. In many ways, they’re worse than the Ray film because they’re incredibly safe Hollywood fantasy. Slightly better is Fuller’s film, which places James as secondary to his killer Robert Ford and provides an interesting look at how shooting James affected Ford. Still, it was Fuller’s first directing job, and it’s mostly just a yarn, though not without merit. Since then, a few more Jesse James movies have popped up, though few with much of a profile. Walter Hill’s The Long Riders comes to mind, as does The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, directed by Philip Kaufman. The former had the neat trick of pairing real-life brothers with roles as outlaw siblings, casting Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Fords, while the latter didn’t bother with Bob Ford at all.

Decades after Fuller and his less lofty ambitions scratched the surface, it took Dominik’s 2007 film to capture the essence of the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford. Here we have Brad Pitt giving a raw, but slightly reined-in performance as James, his fellow Missouri native and someone of equally ridiculous renown. Pitt has certainly been willing to peel away his movie star qualities before, in everything from 12 Monkeys and Snatch to Fight Club and Babel, but it’s exceedingly rare to see him as such a serpent like figure, and a boisterously arrogant one at that. His James is a coldblooded maniac who’s seemingly on the brink of losing his mind as a result of pent-up paranoia and godlike perception. Dime store books have described every detail of Jesse James, from eye color to height, and helped create a legion of acolytes.

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One of those admirers was Robert Ford, given a characterization for the ages by Casey Affleck here. Affleck has quietly become one of the most interesting actors of his generation, an observation confirmed by his equally good lead role in brother Ben’s Gone Baby Gone, also from last year. His casting here is absolutely perfect. Having Pitt the movie star as the larger than life James and putting an on-the-brink Affleck as a sycophant who lays in wait was a brilliant stroke of serendipity. Affleck makes some bold choices as Ford, turning him into a creepily off-center idolater who somehow ends up both sad and sympathetic. The real beauty in the performance is revealed over the film’s 160-minute running time, as Ford evolves from a bright-eyed wannabe, into an angry punk, and, finally, as a disappointed antihero who’s fulfilled his destiny of the title without attaining the glamour he wrongheadedly thought would go with it.

In the film’s last twenty minutes, it shows its stripes as being more concerned with the effects, before and after the fact, of celebrity worship than anything normally associated with traditional westerns. This isn’t a movie interested in gunfights and galloping horses. There are roots spread out across John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but the late 19th century time period is less a convenient excuse for comparison than an opportunity to portray the West as an early instance of false heroes built from ink on paper. We’ll defend our idols through every criticism and digest and collect each little piece of information we can find, but once the tides have turned, things can get extremely ugly.

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There’s plenty more to glean from Dominik’s film, though. It certainly looks beautiful, thanks to Roger Deakins’ usually brilliant cinematography (earning an Oscar nomination this year where’s he up against, among others, himself, for No Country for Old Men). Even if it doesn’t really feel like Days of Heaven, many of the scenes resemble Terrence Malick’s film on an aesthetic level. The pacing is incredibly languid, but dreamy enough to never drag and actually lends itself to an even longer version. This is absolutely not a film filled with overly long takes of nature. I think it’s fair to call it a little bloated, but not in the sense of too many artfully crafted scenes. The story unfolds deliberately, maybe even to a fault, with a narrative more in the style of a novel’s chapters than simply allowing events to occur naturally, one after the other. A voiceover narration further adds to this approach, and helps maintain the film’s desired elegiac tone.

It does feel a little like you’re turning the pages of a book while watching the film, but I wouldn’t say this particularly bothered me. The performances, the camera work, and the well-explored underlying themes of celebrity, paranoia, and betrayal are all reason enough to set aside any lingering concerns. I don’t particularly think this fits the normal definition of a Western, though enthusiasts of that genre will hopefully still take something of value away from the film. It’s more of a Mafia drama with horses, and Brad Pitt is the obvious don. He’s a man with all the power, surrounded by underlings he can’t trust, and willing to establish his dominance through violent force against those who betray him. The only thing I have difficulty buying is how the title act is presented. That aside, the remainder of the film is as strong or stronger as anything that comes before, and, using some of the best parts found in Fuller’s version, Dominik establishes a nearly perfect epilogue. The mythology of Jesse James’ death turns into the proverbial “be careful what you wish for,” and Robert Ford has to endure the fate he’s created for himself, assassinating Jesse James 800 times before facing the cruel destiny of history repeating itself.

Michael Clayton December 1, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 3 comments

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Admittedly, this is not a traditional review at all. I saw Michael Clayton a couple of weeks ago, in a small theater on an otherwise uninteresting day. I was anxious to watch it, based on positive reviews, George Clooney’s usual dramatic competence, and writer/director Tony Gilroy’s impressive screenwriting work on the Bourne films. It didn’t blow me away though. Far from flashy or calling attention to itself, Gilroy’s directorial debut plays like a highly competent legal thriller. Yet, it sneaks up on you. I’ve seen nearly every lawyer-related movie I know of, but this was a refreshingly different approach. No courtrooms, no cases really. Clooney’s Michael Clayton character is a lawyer in name and title only. He describes himself as a janitor, someone who fixes the problems of the rich.

This is apt, too. The character is incredibly weary, worn like a reliable pair of pants bought years ago. The story is told in a present-flashback-present mode that too often feels gimmicky, but completely works here. We don’t see what Clayton was or did before the events in the film, but Clooney’s performance and Gilroy’s contribution tell us absolutely everything. It’s stunning how accomplished and effortlessly the backstories stand out here. Anything we need to know about what Michael Clayton has done previously is completely contained within Clooney. The diversionary false lead we’re given, where Clayton visits a wealthy hit-and-run proponent in the middle of the night, works incredibly well the second time around. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another movie where the before-and-after device is used to better effect.

The most surprising thing here isn’t that the movie works, it’s that it really sticks as an affecting, memorable look at corporate malfeasance. I’ve been trying to catch up and voraciously watch the “big” fall movies and few, if any, have made an impact like Michael Clayton. It’s absolutely solid movie-making, on par with the best of the genre films Hollywood put out in the 1970s. Yet, because it is so enmeshed in conventional storytelling and limited ambition, I think it’s easy to overlook the film initially. There’s little that stands out while you’re watching the movie. Frequently, I’ll find myself completely enthralled in a film’s plot, dying to know what’s going to happen, only to end up shedding any lasting memory of it hours later. By total contrast, Gilroy’s film has burrowed its way inside my head while others have long since fallen by the wayside.

A huge part of this is due to the ending (I won’t spoil it, don’t worry). I don’t think there’s been a more fitting finale all year. I’m generally not great with endings. I don’t always remember them and, unless they pull the rug out from under the rest of the movie, I often fail to place any additional emphasis on the last few minutes than what I’d been watching the previous couple of hours. Michael Clayton is different somehow. So completely satisfying, so mysteriously uncertain, it’s nearly perfect. Not only does the film’s plot circle around to an entirely appropriate finish, but the final shots are likewise without flaw. As the credits roll, the images remain mesmerizing. Clooney is magnetic. I feel like Gilroy may have lifted this particular idea from something else, but I don’t know what it was and I’m not sure it would have worked as well anyway. If he didn’t, then I’m even more impressed.

The Clayton character is far from admirable and refreshingly without total redemption, but he’s the best we’ve got and that’ll have to do. I’m just so happy that a studio movie like this could be made today, where everything is murky and no one’s perfect. If my reactions are based on heart and gut more than other, more sophisticated senses then so be it. I think this is one of the best films in recent memory and it’s possibly the only movie this year where my opinion has elevated as time has passed instead of falling into the ether. Anyone watching the film should stay for the entirety of the main credits and fix their eyes on Clooney’s performance to see one of the best examples of nonverbal acting this year.  Up to this point in his career, it’s the actor’s signature role.

Through a Year Darkly November 13, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 6 comments

The paths taken by Hollywood films this year have caused even my half-charcoal heart to skip a few beats. I usually relish a trip to the seediest parts of tinseltown, but 2007 has been unrelenting in its explorations of evil. This isn’t about the foolish “torture porn” that’s swept in and out of theaters and teenage boys’ heads these past few years. I’m talking about the serious and acclaimed R-rated adult fare. You only need to have one eye opened halfway to see the mess and frustration in the United States so the starting point is a bit obvious. The depths, though, are unexpectedly dark and unforgiving. Week after week these past couple of months, a new, incredibly well-made and horrifically depressing movie seems to open.

Obviously, these types of films are far from new. Just last year, Martin Scorsese’s violent, even nihilistic, film The Departed cleaned up at the box office and won Best Picture at the Oscars. But it’s the frequency of the downbeat and deadened that has gotten my attention lately. I believe the first 2007 film I saw was David Fincher’s serial killer procedural Zodiac, a terrifically engrossing look at the depths of obsession and the unresolved strands it often leaves behind. Even for Fincher’s head-in-a-box reputation, Zodiac is decidedly upsetting and without comfort. A vicious murderer terrorizes a city without facing punishment while lives are ruined trying to pursue him. No resolution, no smiles leaving the theater. Fincher’s insistence on making the audience share the uncomfortable and frustrating process of trying to catch a serial killer who shouldn’t reasonably possess the intelligence to elude everyone involved resulted in a 158-minute exercise in endurance that most audiences declined.

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Cut to a few months and numerous blockbuster sequels later. Jodie Foster took justice into her own hands in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One. A crowd-pleasing vigilante justice/female empowerment picture or a hamfisted attempt to shed light on a nation’s post 9/11 fears towards a phantom enemy? Next, Jesse James was assassinated to great reviews, but, again, no one came (though Warner Bros. can partially blame themselves here). Released the same day, a young man of upper middle-class wealth and privilege abandons his charmed life for a quixotic (and doomed) life in the wild. More death. At least a trio of films critical of the current administration and the United States’ involvement in the middle east also foundered at the box office. I’ll hold judgment on their merits and their messages until I’ve seen them (if I do at all). I’m pretty confident that uplifting would not describe In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, or Lions for Lambs though.

For sheer unfiltered violence, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises probably takes the blood-stained cake. The much-ballyhooed bathhouse sequence left me literally nauseous, a combination of sustained struggle leaving us nowhere to escape and visceral stabbings that shatter the safety glass usually enjoyed by the audience. It has a semi-happy ending, but the ultimate message is far from consoling for the thoughtful viewer. Mouthbreathing Videodrome nerds struggle with the idea that a 64-year-old Cronenberg has forked off into studio-financed “mainstream” efforts back-to-back now, but Eastern Promises feels about as uncompromising in its ideas on the saturation of violence as anything I’ve seen this year, save for maybe a masterpiece of a film that I’ll get to in a bit.

There are three more “dark” films that I’m anxious to see, but haven’t made time for just yet. Michael Clayton, which might be downright saccharine compared to the other films I’ve discussed, We Own the Night and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead all appear to be decidedly black tales of greed, circumstance, and the perils of criminal behavior. A film I have seen and one I enjoyed a whole lot, Gone Baby Gone is another excellent peek behind a corner Hollywood has long avoided. Ben Affleck made a conscious decision to utilize the harsh faces and alcohol-bruised bodies of a tough Boston neighborhood for his directorial debut. His star and brother, Casey Affleck, is a green private investigator treading water in a kidnapping case. He refuses to sacrifice his ideals, but, as always, at a cost. There’s a scene of harrowing realism that deserves its own award, in some undetermined and likely undervalued category.

Darkly pretending to belong to my invented criteria is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Audiences are eating up the cop versus drug lord “true” story, but it’s an empty film with a gossamer-thin impact. There’s the deplorable glamorization of Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas character, given a child safety cap flipside by depicting a stray scene of heroin abuse here and there to, you know, show that the guy who’s built up as cool and rich is really hurting his community. It’s also a film that, despite running over 2 1/2 hours, manages to feel incomplete in characterization and plot. Incredibly messy, disingenuous, and damaging, American Gangster is only depressing if you look at its giant box office take.

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Deceptively darker is Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Though no one else in their right mind would probably throw Baumbach’s film in the cage with these other bloodthirsty beasts, it’s actually quite violent emotionally, only made less so by the realization that most viewers will find difficulty relating to any of the characters on screen despite their actions at least feeling plausible. Like his New Wave heroes, Baumbach makes films about upper-middle class white people with damaging problems and populates them with characters you want to wash off your skin immediately after the credits. Nicole Kidman’s Margot is a malignant disease of a woman, brought to life in a brave, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performance that’s a career highlight. Despite the artificiality of Baumbach’s situations, his characters are brilliantly-sketched train wrecks and Margot is the queen.

And what was that masterpiece mentioned earlier? The Coen Brothers’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men. It’s far and away the most disheartening and pessimistic film I’ve seen this year, on par with anything else I can think of, and the best of this dark bunch. Javier Bardem’s dead eyes seem to represent evil personified. The film argues persuasively for the idea that darkness, evil, whatever you want to call it, is undeniable and a harrowing fact of life. Death is inevitable and, echoing themes explored repeatedly in film noir, fate can be cruel and unsparing. Whatever life has in store for us will happen, whether it involves a gesture of kindness or an act motivated by greed. One thing need not follow the next. I keep reading that this film will be looked upon favorably at awards time, and I hope that’s the case. I’m skeptical for now, though, because it’s highly unsettling and a crowd pleaser only in the sense that it’s a great film that keeps you riveted throughout. A minor spoiler, but the suddenness of the ending will leave many viewers cold as well, at least on a first viewing.

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There are at least a couple more defiantly bleak films still on the horizon, both ready to strike right around Christmas. Hopefully I’ll have recovered a bit from all this cinematic rot and ruin by the time Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd film hit theaters. The former stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a turn-of-the-century oil man who, judging from the brutal trailer, is far from a nice guy. Early reviews have been near-unanimous in praise and in mentioning how difficult and downbeat the film is. Burton’s movie stars Johnny Depp as a serial killer barber and it’s at least partially a musical. Most of Burton’s film have that macabre, but shallow flair that I still enjoy. They’re usually more shiny black than starkly so. Then again, Burton may deliver a depressing bloodbath to keep ahead of the curve.

I’m sure I’m leaving a few things out and this is not my way of making a statement against these films, nor am I claiming to be the only one noticing the trend. There’s just so much I can watch before slowly taking a step back and wondering what’s going on. When nearly every movie I walk out of the theater from has managed to suck the marrow from my bones and inspire a heightened sense of unease, it starts to take a toll. Without going too far, I have to wonder if this borderline apocalyptic view of the world repeatedly being reflected from the screen is a fitting interpretation of our times or just a wrinkle that will be ironed out with a new year and a new crop of films. Are we getting what we deserve, or have things gotten off-kilter? These days, these days.

The Darjeeling Limited September 30, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 1 comment so far

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Sometimes I can understand how films polarize movie fans (the work of Quentin Tarantino) and sometimes I can’t (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, for example). Right now, with his new film The Darjeeling Limited just opening the New York Film Festival, Wes Anderson seems to be an auteur under fire, though more of the brush variety than a raging inferno. I can’t be objective any more than I can understand most of the criticism I read (which is substantial, and I keep looking at every review I find in search of some true rationale for the sneering). Anderson’s films are far and above those of any other American filmmaker from the same indie/post-indie generation. He has an unparalleled ability to craft unlikeable characters you want to spend time with, not just once but over and over again. Their failure expresses a very certain, specific emotion that feels at once real and imaginary. By repeatedly going to similar places of frustration and regret, Anderson somehow accomplishes a great deal of truth in such a highly imaginary world. These families of broken potential he explores tend to give audiences hope by trying to make things right. It’s always, always the journey in these films, since the destination has, so far, been of the same nature each time.

It seems the common source of attack for many of Anderson’s detractors concerns the director’s repeated use of a particular style - one in which Anderson himself has created and honed through five films now. Aside from the absurdity of criticizing a director for tweaking similar themes through similar devices, my real problem with this argument is that I don’t think it’s fair to view the world Anderson has so completely brought to life as comparative of the outside reality we face once we step into the street or away from our television sets. His films are a universe unto themselves, on par with the classic Walt Disney animated films or Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers. Asking why Anderson enjoys using similarly troubled characters or devices like slow motion and perfectly placed classic pop songs is akin to complaining about the recurring murders and male-female relationships in Hitchcock’s films or little girl lost themes found in the animation of Disney’s features or those of Hayao Miyazaki.

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But I digress. The Darjeeling Limited. It’s a beautiful film of maturing sadness, pain, and grief - with laughs. Of course, that describes all of his films. Wes Anderson may love Wes Anderson films, but so do I, and I have no problem with that. The Darjeeling Limited is closer in most every way to The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s 2001 film for which he was nominated with co-writer Owen Wilson for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, his 2004 film deemed a disappointment commercially and critically. It’s also better than the latter (still underrated) film, if not quite up to the heights of the former. What both Darjeeling and Tenenbaums share, and what Life Aquatic lacked in comparison, are the tender details necessary to humanize Anderson’s eccentricities. The new film tones down the previous one’s comic book quirks and crowded ensemble and instead leaves us with just three lead characters who spend much of their time on a train.

That train is named The Darjeeling Limited and the three stars are Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, as the brothers Whitman who haven’t seen each other since their father’s funeral a year ago. Francis (Wilson) has organized a journey through India in search of a spiritual healing. He’s recently been involved in a severe motorcycle crash, leaving his face and head noticeably bruised and bandaged. Peter (Brody) seems to have taken the unexpected loss of their father the hardest and picked up several of the old man’s items for his own, including large prescription sunglasses. He’s also six weeks away from becoming a new father and unsure if his wife was really the right woman to spend his life with. Jack (Schwartzman) is struggling to get over a relationship gone bad, something explored further in Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier, which is available for free online but not currently showing theatrically with the feature.

For anyone wondering whether they should first watch Hotel Chevalier before seeing the new film, the answer is of course you should. There are two significant references to the short in the feature that will fly over those who haven’t seen it, as well as diminishing the seriousness of Jack’s troubles. Just seeing the film makes Jack appear depressed and odd, but seeing the short beforehand adds an important depth and understanding to his problems. The teaser I saw before the film started doesn’t help matters, directing audiences to hotelchevalier.com (which, in turn, directs visitors to iTunes) instead of just showing the 13-minute prologue. Not surprisingly, Darjeeling also adds some meaning to Hotel Chevalier and I found the short more impressive on reflection after having seen the feature than I had originally. The emotionally abusive nature of the relationship gains meaning when the viewer learns of Jack’s hang-ups both preceding and subsequent to the events in the short.

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In both Darjeeling and Tenenbaums, it’s the emotional blow dealt to the Anderson faithful that really strikes me. If you’re not affected by what the director has done in his previous films, then why even waste money to see his subsequent works or time grousing about them. It’s not a difference of opinion that I find tiresome. It’s the reiterations of the same criticisms without understanding that many, many people see a completely different allure to Anderson’s films, something the complainers apparently can’t appreciate. The Darjeeling Limited playfully bows to Anderson’s admirers in the film’s opening, teasing Bill Murray, making his fourth appearance for the director, and passing the slow-motion Kinks-scored baton to Adrien Brody catching up to the eponymous locomotive. Far from being overly cute in its self-reference, the scene instead assures audiences that yes, this is a Wes Anderson film, and indeed, this is the kind of movie he enjoys making. There’s a welcome evolution of maturity in the film, but also a refusal to completely change the things many viewers hold near and dear in Anderson’s style.

Aside from the usual moments of hilarity found in Anderson’s films (the rotating prescription strength painkillers are used to frequent and funny effect), I think the part of Darjeeling most people will enjoy and be moved by is when the three brothers happen upon a trio of young Indian boys transporting goods across the water. As the raft and boys struggle, the Whitmans finally bond by trying to save the three children against the strength of the current. The ordeal leads to the spiritual journey Francis had superficially been trying to accomplish all along, helping the brothers to regain their lives and let go of their dead father. These scenes, coupled with a visit to their mother’s convent, showcase Anderson’s masterful ability to alternate moods and feelings via sound (not just music, but silence also) and his deceptively simple dialogue.

“I guess I still have some healing left to do,” Francis says as he removes the bandages and looks at his blood-stained facial gashes in the mirror. If that doesn’t get you at least a little, especially given the added depth from Wilson’s recent personal problems, you’re a cold soul unable to appreciate what Anderson’s doing here and elsewhere. To borrow from a forum discussion I recently read, this line and moment in Darjeeling is the cousin of Tenenbaums‘ “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” Is this problematic? No more so than Disney’s happy endings or Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. All of these little aspects of the worlds Anderson magically creates in his films exist solely in the films. They’re parallel universes to our realities. I’m not sure if those with a negative opinion of Anderson fail to understand this concept or simply dislike the idea that someone dares to create a near-mythology separate from what’s found in most movies. It’s nothing new, though, as movies have quite obviously always been different and not representative of most people’s actual lives. That’s why their movies and that’s why so many people devote hours and hours of their lives to watching them.

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The Bourne Allegory: Matt Damon as the American Public August 21, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 6 comments

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Note: This discussion will contain spoilers for the films featuring Matt Damon as amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne, specifically the most recent installment The Bourne Ultimatum.

With the release of The Bourne Ultimatum, it appears that the final chapter in the movie life of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne has been written. Outstanding box office grosses may prove otherwise, but the protagonist’s quest at least feels complete by the end of Paul Greengrass’s action thriller. The three movies, including The Bourne Identity and its follow-up The Bourne Supremacy, have had an enormous impact on the action genre (witness Casino Royale), the revitalization of Matt Damon’s acting career, and the emergence of Greengrass as a director to pay attention to after he picked up where Doug Liman left off following the first film. They’re all supremely entertaining pictures, as good as any of their ilk this decade, but this last one opened my eyes to a fascinating political undercurrent that may breeze by or simply not interest the popcorn junkies.

The first film, directed by Liman and based on (but not entirely faithful to) the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, was released in June of 2002, less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. At this time, the American people and even the world community were wounded, confused, and angry. An uneasy confidence loomed within the United States. The lingering sense of shock provided constant reminders that we were vulnerable, but our history and perseverance were sources of great, prosperous hope. The persons responsible would pay for what they had done, this horrible, undeserved jolt to the American livelihood.

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Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, the character of Jason Bourne, played with stoic efficiency by Matt Damon, is found in Mediterranean waters with two gunshot wounds and unable to remember anything about his past. This is an action hero easy to sympathize with, and, maybe, relate to for the American public. He’s been viciously attacked by persons unknown, but remains resilient and determined to get some answers. It becomes apparent that he’s been trained as a lethal warrior-soldier, fully equipped with the tools necessary to accomplish this new, personal mission. To draw a parallel with the American military, Bourne was no longer fighting someone else’s battle. Just as U.S. troops spent decades intervening in conflicts not their own, Damon’s character had followed orders to kill strangers without asking questions. With these more intimate attacks, the tables had abruptly turned.

By the end of the first film, Bourne has seemingly found peace by moving to a remote area with Marie, a woman who helped him and with whom he’s fallen in love, played by Franka Potente. His temporary happiness distracts Bourne from the bigger picture of his prior life as an assassin for the CIA much the same way the American public were briefly distracted by a “war” with Afghanistan. I’m not intending this as foreign policy debate, but it’s undeniable that whatever the United States did in Afghanistan failed to eliminate our greatest threats. Likewise, Bourne’s attempts at remaining safe, by lying low and ignoring his enemies, proved ineffective in The Bourne Supremacy when Marie is killed by men targeting Bourne.

It’s important to note that The Bourne Supremacy was released in July 2004, roughly 16 months after the United States invaded Iraq and in the midst of a tense presidential election campaign. This was not yet a wholly unpopular war and the American public, despite a significant political divide, retained a faded, yet optimistic hope that the war in Iraq wasn’t completely for naught. The events of September 11 were still very much in people’s minds (as evidenced by much of the campaign rhetoric) and many people believed deposing Saddam Hussein was a step in the right direction for stopping future terrorist attacks. However, the public was increasingly starting to lose patience with the ordeal in Iraq and the slow failure to find Osama bin Laden.

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In comparison (and contrast), Bourne in the second entry is devastated and enraged by Marie’s death and begins to remember some of the assignments he had as an assassin. His determination is renewed after two years of peace, knowing the only way to make this end will be to find those responsible and do whatever must be done to stop them. Yet, he’s only so effective in this and barely scratches the surface of the bigger picture. Similar to the pronounced drip of information trickling out to the American public regarding the basis of the war in Iraq and who knew what when, Bourne has repeated flashbacks into his past that slowly give him a better idea of exactly what it was he did prior to his amnesia. In both instances, the revelations are not comforting and show cause for significant regret and governmental distrust.

By the end of The Bourne Supremacy, we’ve learned that our hero has done terrible things in the name of continued “freedom” and suffers guilt and frustration as a result. Parallels can easily be drawn here between what Bourne feels and the contrition experienced by many Americans over shameful incidents at military prison Abu Ghraib involving U.S. soldiers, and, in a broader sense, the utter disruption to the lives of the Iraqi people due to the American invasion. Though this is perhaps a little attenuated of a comparison and will obviously vary based on one’s own personal views, I think it’s still apt. Coincidental or not, Jason Bourne serves as an eerily accurate face of the American public regarding post-9/11 foreign policy, an idea cemented and fully realized in The Bourne Ultimatum.

The third film’s plot picks up where the previous one left off, as Bourne tries to figure out who trained him and for what purpose. His journey leads to London and, finally, back to New York, where he gets tangled up with maniacal CIA man David Straithairn and Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy, returning from the second film. Meanwhile, Bourne is being targeted by CIA-contracted assassins, men doing the same thing he once had done. Essentially, Bourne’s life is threatened by persons acting exactly as he had done prior to the amnesia, similar to how Americans’ safety has been at risk as a result of actions deemed terrorist when committed by our enemies, but acceptable when we’re the ones “protecting our freedoms.”

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It’s near the end of The Bourne Ultimatum when everything coalesced for me and I realized Bourne was intended, as opposed to a more coincidental nature in the others, to be seen as a stand-in for the experiences of the American public. He visits Albert Finney’s character Dr. Hirsch at the training facility where everything started for the man then known as David Webb, where he swore his allegiance to the United States of America under the auspices that it was for the greater good. He was a soldier, a patriot willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country by completely transforming himself into a robot waiting for his next mission. Though he was told part of what would be required, Webb was an innocent by virtue of the naive belief that he wouldn’t be misused. Like the American people, his ultimate fault was in placing his complete trust in his nation’s government and not asking questions in the process.

For the populace at large, that trust was betrayed by years of covert tactics handpicking leaders to overthrow unfriendly foreign governments, many of whom unsurprisingly turned on the United States and became our enemies. Just as Bourne comes to realize that his experimental training had been used to assassinate those inconvenient to U.S. foreign policy, the people of the United States have discovered for themselves that they were tricked into supporting a false war using rationales from 9/11 to WMD’s to rosy portraits of freeing little Arab children. The debate over what’s necessary in foreign policy isn’t what matters here, it’s the idea that both Bourne and the America he represents in these films have been trained to accept lies and false mandates and both must deal with the consequences.

The epiphany-rendering scene near the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, when Damon’s increasingly weary character struggles with flashbacks to assassination assignments, reminded me very much of the myriad opportunities my country has had to viciously kill despot after despot. This painful legacy is in full focus here, regardless of the box office grosses and franchise popularity. I’m not complaining one iota. It’s an extremely brave move for the Bourne principals to insert such a subversive, politically charged point in a film destined for millions of Americans to fork over ten bucks worth of admission on any given August night. Jason Bourne expresses his guilt like his fellow Americans: silently and ineffectively. The Bourne character and the American public negligently turned a blind eye to repeated foreign policy improprieties and our punishment is to experience the aftermath. Twin amnesiacs doomed to the nightmares of our sins.

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If the entire Bourne franchise is really about mistrust and betrayal at the hands of the presumed good guys, then what does the ending suggest when we’re made to believe justice is served and the malfeasance wasn’t widespread? It suggests a Hollywood movie, I think. That’s what happens in big-budget, studio-financed films. It always has. The fun is in looking between the lines for less obvious, but no less important, themes. I find it highly unlikely that director Paul Greengrass and the rest of the Bourne team didn’t intentionally position their film as a direct shot at the hearts and minds of American moviegoers. It’s subtle enough so that most people won’t leave the theater disturbed and angered at America’s foreign policy sins (which is good, I suppose, so as not to awaken the shiny happy public), but still manages to make its point loud and clear if you’re paying attention.

The poster adds mysterious fuel to the fire, placing Bourne right in the middle of the New York skyline once anchored in part by the World Trade Center towers. It’s an obvious reference to 9/11, but what exactly does it mean? I can only speculate like anyone else, but my interpretation is that Bourne symbolizes the innocence lost by the American public on that tragic day. We’re no longer able to carelessly follow our leaders’ foreign policy actions without realizing the possible long-term ramifications that could indeed be hazardous to our livelihoods. Granted that’s giving the designer a ton of credit possibly undeserved, but I like the idea that the poster would tie up the entire franchise so neatly, coincidence or not.

Flags of Our Fathers July 13, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 2 comments

Movies that depict the Hollywood version of war rarely interest me. When I learned Clint Eastwood was making a war film called Flags of Our Fathers, I expected the possibility of brutal violence packaged in an updated version of standard Hollywood fare. The trailer looked like more of the same - a rousing spectacle full of patriotism and modesty intended to pull at the explosion-loving male heartstrings . Mixed reviews came in, as several influential critics raved and others called it disappointing. Still nothing to really change my mind. I usually like Eastwood’s directorial efforts, but the much-lauded, Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby sorely disappointed me with its one-dimensional characters and failure to break free from stale convention. I didn’t want to be fooled twice.

As it turns out, I was fooled in a different way. I underestimated Eastwood and his conviction in destroying the mythmaking types of films he had himself popularized in his past life as a movie star. Unforgiven had brilliantly taken apart the western, leaving the genre with little room left to breathe and arguably placing it in creative retirement these last fifteen years. More recently, Mystic River seemed to present the devastating flip side to the vigilante justice made famous by Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry series. Now, it seems, the trilogy of repenting for earlier violence comes to a close with Eastwood’s twin war films focusing on the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters to Iwo Jima.

The latter received nearly unanimous critical praise when it was released last year, culminating in Oscar nominations for the film and its director and becoming the first Japanese language Best Picture nominee. All of this did little to make me anxious to see the former film, which still seemed like a misfire and maybe even a more standard war film plagued by Eastwood’s sloppy lack of perfectionism. It had all the makings of yet another tribute to the “Greatest Generation,” this time made by someone who was nearly their age. Then, with lowered expectations, I finally watched Flags of Our Fathers and was angered, moved, and frustrated by both the story and the film.

Eastwood and his screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. cobbled together two conflicting threads for their film. Based on the book of the same name by James Bradley, son of the character Doc Bradley and portrayed here by Tom McCarthy (also the director of The Station Agent), Eastwood’s film tries to maintain its appeal to veterans and their families by reminding the audience a little too much of the misguided Saving Private Ryan bookends. Both films begin and end with contemporary scenes presumably intended to allow the viewer to recognize that the events in each film took place a “really long time ago.” Why else include the flashback structure, which of course proves maddeningly false in Spielberg’s film, other than as an attempt to avoid a full, difficult to relate to World War II setting.

In Flags of Our Fathers, the messy idea of James Bradley searching for insight into his father’s war trauma serves little purpose. Anyone paying attention to the remainder of the film will easily realize why and to what extent the older Bradley suffered with gruesome memories he didn’t want. The completely uninspired epilogue should have never made the finished film. If the actual James Bradley was seen talking with the real men instead of the emotion-deflating use of actors then maybe the modern-day scenes would have maintained the tone of the rest of the film. Instead, we’re left with McCarthy trying to look thoughtful while typing on a computer. For a film that works largely as a response to nearly every other portrayal of WWII, these final missteps, all returning to the reverence of war myth the rest of the film had been trying to shatter, are absolutely frustrating and inconsistent.

Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, most everything else about Flags of Our Fathers is a refreshingly uncompromising account of how three men used a photograph to escape the battlefield before ultimately having the United States government use them as disposable cheerleaders. In short, my expectations had been almost completely wrong. This is a war film with no blinders, one that is fearless in its total assault on the idea of soldiers as heroes. It disintegrates the World War II myth of simple right and wrong, good and evil, in the process correcting the often held assumption that war can somehow be heroic or justified. Instead of “war is hell,” Eastwood’s film implies that war is a business and as such it must be marketed and sold regardless of the truth.

The film reminds us that wars have always been built on lies, with innocents thrown into the machine and discarded at the government’s discretion. Some, like three of the men in the famous photograph at the center of Flags of Our Fathers, escape through horrific deaths. Then there are the others, the ones who survive as the three main characters of the film do, who end up doomed to recreate what they’ve seen and heard through the dreams of years to come. The surviving men in the photograph, Navy Corpsman John Bradley and Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, are depicted here as damaged by the celebrity status thrust upon them by a desperate United States government. They struggle with survivor’s guilt, false promises and unwanted fame, respectively, as the din of thanks from a grateful nation falls silent.

Though the stories of all three men are compelling, it’s Hayes, a Pima Indian thrust into the spotlight against his will, who is the film’s tragic figure. An habitual drunk, Ira Hayes was found dead, face down and buried in his own vomit, at the age of 32, less than a decade after the flag raising. While the movie only touches on his experiences, it still manages to paint a complex picture of a man who was cruelly refused service in a restaurant on the same night he was cheered before a football stadium full of people. As Hayes, Adam Beach is perfect, inspiring emotion and compassion for someone who must have been difficult to portray. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the best in the film.

Though Hayes and the other two men are reluctant to accept their status as heroes, Flags of Our Fathers seems to argue, firstly, that they deserve the designation as much as most any other soldier, and, conversely, that war doesn’t make heroes. This second statement is a fascinating proposition, not necessarily new, but mostly unmined by big budget Hollywood war movies. Eastwood and his screenwriters ultimately waver on the idea near the end, returning to the awkward contemporary scenes and using the iconic photograph of the flag raising as the last image after the credits, but the entirety of the main 1945 part of the film argues differently.

Innovative editing caroms between brutal combat scenes full of mistakes and lucky survival and the soldiers’ publicity roles as war bond promoters. This is the reward for “heroes,” misleading the public into thinking the second raising of a flag had any bearing on the outcome of a battle, much less a war, and constant reminders that three of the men in the photograph with them, including one not even receiving any credit, will never see their families again. The horror of war is enough to leave a foul taste in my mouth, but propaganda run amok makes me unsure if I should be sick or in tears. I’ve never been so emotionally invested in a war movie. This must be the least patriotic World War II film Hollywood has ever given us.

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The Grifters July 7, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 1990s , 1 comment so far

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Seventeen years after its release, The Grifters is looking like one of the better films to use film noir themes since color cinematography eliminated the true noir aesthetic. It’s unapologetically populated with morally corrupt characters, and has an extraordinarily bleak and abrupt ending. The film also wisely avoids becoming overly ambitious, seeming even shorter than its 110 minutes. We’re given two superb femme fatale characters, played in Oscar-nominated performances by Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. Then there’s the male lead, the perpetually under-appreciated John Cusack, playing a character completely content with being a small con man even if it ultimately leads to his downfall.

The Grifters was based on a novel of the same name by Jim Thompson, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplays for The Killing and Paths of Glory, had his book The Getaway brought to the screen twice, and is generally adored by readers of pulpy noir-type fiction. Thompson’s story was adapted by Donald Westlake, a well-known writer whose novel The Hunter was the basis for John Boorman’s Point Blank. Having never read the Thompson book, I can’t say how close the film adheres to its source material, but what we see in The Grifters is a lean, well-constructed example of how to perfectly develop three characters while setting into motion an uncomplicated, interesting storyline.

Like many of the great noirs of the ’40s and ’50s, the film is really more successful as a character study than a crime thriller. Through flashbacks and innuendo, the audience learns that Cusack’s Roy and Huston’s Lilly have, let’s say, an unorthodox mother-son relationship and Bening’s Myra has a history of grifting, a con artist term neatly quoted at the onset from the Rodgers and Hart song “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Each character seems constantly vying to be the most cold-hearted of the bunch, with a winner only emerging at the very end. If you love films like this, as I do, it becomes difficult deciding whether you should feel sympathy for any one of them, specifically Cusack’s character who’s positioned as the protagonist.

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Roy is a small-time grifter who’s more interested in scamming bartenders out of ten bucks than running a long con. He has a substantial stash of money hidden behind a sad clown painting so we know he must be either frugal and prolific or experienced in bigger scams than he lets on. All signs point to the former, a guy who lives for the take and is unable to turn his back on a mark. When he’s on a train with Myra, he spots some sailors, including a young, balder Jeremy Piven, and locks in on his prey despite little opportunity for escape should the con go bad. You get the feeling that it’s a compulsion for Roy, something he enjoys even if he knows his limits in scale but not frequency.

His mother, Lilly, has been grifting all her life and is tied up with the unlikely named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle, who’s only one of the several recognizable character actors present). With her looks fading and her platinum hair unable to conceal that she’s now a woman in her forties, Lilly probably sees an ending point to her viability as a crook. Her plan of attack has been to steal money from Bobo and hide the bills in the trunk of her car as she works racetrack schemes. We see that Lilly isn’t terribly bright or particularly brave when faced with Bobo, leaving her future in doubt. Her influence in Roy’s life causes a rift between Myra and him and ultimately brings down all three principal characters.  The animal-like survival instinct we see from Lilly (stunningly brought to life by Huston in the finest scene of her career) is a startling reminder that these types of people don’t play nice.

If Lilly is the ice queen maternal figure, then Myra is the calculating mistress of indeterminate motive. Like Roy, the audience can never be sure of Myra’s intentions. We see right away that she’s found the ultimate weakness in man - lust - and is more than willing to exploit it for her own benefit. She’s opportunistic to a fault, conniving and conning with a smile. There’s no way of knowing for sure what she has in store for Roy, or whether the large con she’s mapped out would result in a nice payday for both of them or just her. Ruthless and alluring, Myra is a femme fatale equal to the best in film noir.

All three actors give their characters the perfect blend of callous indifference and seasoned, professional confidence to make for superb performances. I believe Cusack was only 24 years old when the film was shot and he’s a revelation, breaking free once and for all from the constraints of a career mostly spent in teen comedies. Since then, he’s honed a nice reputation frequently playing characters who care too little in films such as Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity and the underrated The Ice Harvest. An Academy Award nomination to match Huston’s and Bening’s would have been a deserved honor for the actor. Still never nominated in his career, Cusack was overlooked in 1990 in favor of Robert De Niro in Awakenings and Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, among others.

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Huston and Bening lost to Kathy Bates in Misery and Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost, respectively. Not my choices, but at least they were nominated. Both actresses give stunningly cruel, multi-dimensional performances. Watching the film recently, I detected a bit of Gloria Grahame, among other notable noir actresses, in the way Bening plays Myra and then I discovered that she actually somewhat patterned her performance after Grahame. It’s perfectly realized, a terrific throwback to what see in older films. I can’t recall a better contemporary example of completely adopting the style and mood of the classic femme fatale than what we see from Bening here. In fact, the entire film is a keenly updated homage to the black-and-white noirs, with added nudity and language but otherwise completely in the same tone.

The versatile director Stephen Frears should bear at least some of the credit for the success of The Grifters. After Martin Scorsese chose to direct Goodfellas instead, though he retained a producing credit and added a brief (unnecessary) opening narration, Frears was chosen following the critical success of Dangerous Liaisons two years earlier. The English director has proven himself adept at several genres, re-teaming with Cusack for High Fidelity and going on to direct fine films like Dirty Pretty Things and last year’s Oscar-nominated The Queen. I’ve seen several of Frears’ films, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed many obvious or consistent threads running throughout his work. Prior to The Grifters, he directed another noteworthy crime film, The Hit, which I’ve not seen but am anxious to view once the rumored release from Criterion surfaces.

The existing R1 special edition DVD of The Grifters is nearly five years old and could use some image clean-up, but remains more than acceptable and affordably priced. A new R2 release in the UK came out in February but I’ve not yet seen any reviews or indication as to whether the transfer is sufficiently better. Both editions seem to share the same special features, including a commentary with Frears, Westlake, Cusack, and Huston and a profile of Jim Thompson. I’d be curious to hear any opinions on the possible variations in image. The film itself is quietly great, maybe even a small masterpiece, and should appeal to those who enjoy spending a couple of hours with rotten-hearted noir characters.

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The Bridesmaid May 11, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , add a comment

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Claude Chabrol’s The Bridesmaid (La Demoiselle d’honneur), from 2004, is a strong entry in the prolific French director’s filmography.  Dubbed his country’s master of suspense and compared to that other heavyset director by virtually every lazy writer in the English language, Chabrol has been carving out his own niche since the onset of the French New Wave.  Yet, many of his films remain unreleased on DVD in the English language, including his debut Le Beau Serge, from 1958.  Those that do have releases are frequently plagued by unsatisfactory image quality.  Curiously, the Criterion Collection seem to have passed on releasing any of Chabrol’s efforts on DVD, instead allowing their former sister company Home Vision Entertainment to put out lesser quality versions of some of his films, including the highly regarded La Cérémonie.  This general disrespect towards one of France’s most consistent and entertaining filmmakers unfortunately continues with First Run Features’ recent R1 release of The Bridesmaid.

Based on a novel by British writer Ruth Rendell (whose book A Judgment in Stone was turned into La Cérémonie), Chabrol’s film is a thriller much more concerned with atmosphere and uneasiness than the things that go bump in the night.  The thriller or suspense genre might be my favorite kind of film, but too often these types of movies are terrible, manipulative trash.  At best, they’re usually formulaic and, at worst, they’re almost unwatchable.  Cursed by the hovering spectre of Hitchcock, most elite directors don’t even try to make films within the thriller/suspense parameters.  Sixteen years after its release, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains perhaps the only completely successful example of the genre in the past two decades of English language attempts.  Though the thrills are much more subtle in The Bridesmaid than many of the psychosexual entries in recent years, its impact is more significant than the stale cliches usually forced upon us. 

The film’s title is almost unfortunate because the titular character doesn’t appear onscreen until nearly half an hour has passed.  This early portion sets up the main character, Philippe (Benoît Magimel, from The Piano Teacher), and his family dynamic living with two younger sisters and their mother (Aurore Clément).  The oldest sister is set to marry and the younger one has entered a phase of teenage rebellion.  Meanwhile, the mother is dating an older man and Philippe is skeptical and protective of her.  In fact, there are hints that he’s possibly a little too attached to his mother.  It’s clear that he disagrees with his mother’s decision to give away a garden sculpture, named Flora, to this new suitor.  The man had apparently told Philippe’s mother that the female face resembled her, though he carelessly leaves it at his old house when he moves (without telling her).  Philippe discovers the abandoned bust and takes it home, concealing it in a closet in his bedroom.

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Soon afterwards, Philippe spots an attractive bridesmaid (played by Laura Smet) at his sister’s wedding.  It’s the groom’s cousin Senta, whom Philippe had previously been warned about as an eccentric whose given name was Stephanie.  Passion and loneliness ignite into a male fantasy when Senta, soaking wet from a rainstorm, knocks on Philippe’s door after the wedding and aggressively pursues the man she’d just seen for the first time.  Like other too good to be true sexual cautionary tales we’ve seen in movies, the film quickly lets us know Senta has some quirks, not the least of which are her ways of determining true love.  The film spirals in and out of predictability with Senta, nicely tying up loose ends from the very beginning, and still manages to end with both question marks and exclamation points.       

That ending, as well as Philippe’s slide to meet Senta past the halfway point of her dementia, must be handled ever so delicately to retain the audience’s confidence and believability.  By establishing Philippe as a likeable and ordinary main character, the film smartly plays on the viewer’s normal attempt to relate to a film’s protagonist before stretching the boundaries of what we’re prepared to go along with or accept from Philippe.  To get away with such leaps of logic, the casting should be effectively brilliant, as it is here.  Having the agreeable Magimel play the lead smartly allows the actor to use his natural charm and the enchanting Laura Smet is a perfect choice to make us believe someone like Philippe would act as he does throughout the film.  It’s essential that Magimel make us identify with Philippe and eagerly be on his side, just as Senta must come across as a mysterious, complicated young woman worthy of Philippe’s sacrifices and desires.  Anything less, or in the hands of the wrong actors, and the movie is easily ruined.

It’s a testament, then, to Chabrol’s film that nothing ever feels distractingly off about the whole thing.  The director mentions in a text interview included on the DVD that he is more concerned with the characters than the requisite murder and plot.  This may seem antithetical to a murder mystery, but it’s also probably the reason The Bridesmaid succeeds both within and outside its genre.  The young female victim whose plight is revealed on a newscast at the film’s beginning is hardly even a secondary character so there’s no particular sympathetic feelings an audience has for her.  Her fate is essentially meaningless, and we instead turn our attention to Philippe and Senta, not knowing what roles they may play in the girl’s disappearance.  Otherwise, there’s little mystery involved and the film becomes a character study delving into the consequences of obsession.

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The obsession Senta strangely has with Philippe directly leads to his obsession with her.  Coming out of a failed relationship, Philippe understandably enjoys the attention of the highly sexual Senta.  Her seemingly exaggerated stories appear to be innocent fibs, easy enough to tolerate from someone who’s fawning over him.  When she suggests less healthy escalations in the affair to prove their love, Philippe tries to break free of Senta.  After only a short time apart, he realizes the obsession has become mutual and that he must have her back.  The bust of Flora, transformed from his mother into Senta, becomes an inadequate substitute.  He now needs her as much as she needs him and will do whatever it takes, even if it’s appeasing her perverse need of proof, to be with her.

It’s certainly a thin line Chabrol walks between keeping the audience from being disgusted with the characters and empathizing with Philippe.  Viewers who can’t cross over, even briefly, with the protagonist’s choices may be left disappointed or unfulfilled.  I don’t think the film requires its audience to agree with everything that takes place, but it is necessary to understand why Philippe acts as he does.  As the film progresses, we pick up bits and pieces about his character and his actions ultimately remain consistent with what we learn.  It’s a fascinating and engrossing dive into the nature of compulsion, vulnerability and sexual attraction told by a master filmmaker confident in his abilities to stir an audience without cheap stunts.  

I wish that First Run Features, the company responsible for the R1 DVD, had the same abilities in presenting their release of The Bridesmaid.  It’s obviously nice to have the film on DVD regardless of presentation, but First Run really should have done a more thorough job here.  They’ve committed the egregious error of improper PAL to NTSC conversion, leaving behind significant combing and digital artifacts.  Much of the film is incredibly dark, seemingly more so than intended.  The R2 CineFile UK release apparently shares the darkness factor (reviewed by DVD Beaver here), but I’d be curious as to whether it’s as extremely dark as the R1.  There’s also a French two-disc release that one would think might be the best of the lot.  Additionally, the First Run has burned-in subtitles that are not removable and which seem rather large.  Extra features are highlighted by a 12-minute making-of featurette and the aforementioned text interview with Chabrol.  The lackluster effort from First Run, especially retailing for $30, is a disappointment.  It’s a very good film that would have been better served by an improved release. 

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